What Makes a Memorable Super Bowl Ad?

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COM profs who created one on whether it’s still worth the money

What’s the difference between a Super Bowl ad that fans talk about for days—and one that no one remembers five minutes after it airs? A lot, which is why so much is at stake for companies spending $5 million per 30-second spot to advertise in the annual sports extravaganza on Sunday, when the New England Patriots clash with the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

We asked two experts to give us their take.

Edward Boches and Doug Gould are both College of Communication professors of the practice, advertising. And each made one of the most successful Super Bowl ads of all time.

Boches joined the COM faculty after 30 years as a partner at Mullen (now MullenLowe), a top agency he helped build and lead. As creative director, he led the team behind “When I Grow Up,” a 1999 commercial for the jobs site Monster.com that featured adorable kids making depressing statements like, “I want to claw my way up to middle management.”

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The ad worked.

“Before the Super Bowl, Monster.com’s traffic was running at about 1.5 million unique visitors per month,” said industry journal Ad Age in 2000. “For the remainder of 1999, it averaged 2.5 million visitors per month.”

Gould’s career includes 16 years as a creative director and manager at another top agency, Hill, Holliday. As art director, Gould and his creative partner, copywriter Eivind Ueland, created Anheuser-Busch’s famous 2002 “Respect” ad, a wordless spot that showed the Budweiser Clydesdales bowing toward the New York skyline in a 9/11 tribute. “The marketer and the creator of the spot took some heat for ‘commercializing’ tragedy,” Ad Age wrote. “But consumers loved the spot—and so do we.”

When Ad Age did its Super Bowl Top 50 Ad Countdown in 2016, “Respect” came in at number 3 and “When I Grow Up” was number 2. Number 1, of course, was Apple’s famous “1984” ad that ran during the 1984 Super Bowl.

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“It isn’t that the best ads are always in the Super Bowl—but it is the Super Bowl of advertising,” Gould says. “And that adds a ton of pressure. It can be a big determiner of the rest of your career.”

We spoke to the two separately about the Super Bowl challenge for advertisers and the changing media landscape.

BU Today: What makes a Super Bowl ad worth all the money when companies can put out viral ads on the Internet and social media for free?

Gould: They’re guaranteed a lockdown audience, which is so rare anywhere now. Sports and tragedy are the only things that guarantee eyeballs anymore. And that’s why the Super Bowl is, in my mind, more than ever worth the risk. The more streaming takes hold in the world, the more on-demand takes hold in the world, the more powerful these remaining platforms are going to become.

Boches: Going back 10 or 12 years, before the social web, there were so many fewer media venues that the Super Bowl towered over everything else. I think today in a really, really fragmented media landscape, where we have so many other ways in which people absorb information and share it, I don’t think it has quite the impact that it used to. That being said, the Super Bowl remains one of very few events every year that is a shared common event. We don’t all watch Seinfeld on Thursday night anymore. There are few other options for capturing people’s attention at the same time.

Super Bowl ads are different because advertisers take risks?

Gould: The business of the Super Bowl ad is owning your heart, not the practical side of you. The next day in USA Today, that [“Respect”] ad was like 11th or 12th, but yet that spot is remembered years later. People in the industry recognized that both we and Anheuser-Busch took a risk. But we didn’t create that spot to take a risk—we created it from a sense of what we felt was appropriateness and a brand that we felt had the right to say it at the time. I remember just before it broke, this expert said on the radio, “You’re never going to do well in the Super Bowl unless you’re funny.” And I had a moment of panic that this was going to be deadly. But it succeeded because it broke the rules—with a purpose. Risk divides people, too. Here [grabbing a 2002 copy of Ad Week] it is under “Reader’s Choice,” and here it is under “Most Gratuitous Use of Patriotism.”

Creating that spot has a story?

Gould: At the end, the horses bow to the New York City skyline. When I was a kid, I saw the Clydesdales coming to what is now the Square One Mall in Saugus. In my mind I was convinced I saw them bow. That’s where the idea came from. Brian Sweeney, the producer, came to us in November and said we’ve got to get this done for, I think, February 2. And he said, “There’s one hitch. The horses don’t bow.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? I saw them bow when I was a kid.” And he said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Oh, wait a minute, that would have been the Lipizzaner stallions at the circus, which would have been at the same time in my life.” So, we hired a horse whisperer. And he worked for the better part of a month with two horses to teach them to do it.

What’s the gender angle? Should the Super Bowl be all male-centric pickup truck and beer ads?

Gould: I don’t have the current data, but there are a lot of women watching the Super Bowl. The most memorable spot for me last year was the Tide spot, “It’s a Tide Ad.” It was just brilliant. They took all the typical ways that brands approach commercials and turned them all into a Tide ad in sequence. And men aren’t the primary audience for buying detergent.

Boches: This year you have a brand like Bumble, the women-make-the-first-move dating app—I saw something saying that they have an interesting spot. There may be a message or a voice that responds to what’s happening in the culture, whether it relates to #MeToo or more equality for women in general.

Are the stakes for advertisers different?

Boches: For a long time there were not all these critics and prognosticators passing judgment on the effectiveness of an ad. Now the ratings are important. You’ve got all these hashtags and ad trades and the Wall Street Journal and USA Today measuring their impact in real time. So there is a lot of pressure. The marketing of the commercial itself is now a really big business for brands and agencies.

Gould: If you’re going to do work that stands out, you’re going to occasionally find your detractors. I can’t imagine what would have happened running a 9/11 spot with social media running at the clip it’s at now. I’m not sure I could have lived through it. I’m sure there would be anger.

Final word?

Boches: It seems as if the quality of the work has diminished. It just doesn’t seem to have the cultural impact. It’s been years since we’ve seen something like “1984,” or not to toot my own horn, a Monster.com. I still think there’s high hopes that we’re going to tune in and see something remarkable and magical that changes the brand landscape, but I don’t think we’ve seen that in a long time.